'Top of the Heap' near the bottom


April 11, 1991|By Michael Hill

The Fox network has a problem getting its combinations down right. It will have one show that's popular and gives it a good opening, but it can't find the one to follow it that would provide the knockout punch and really deliver a night of good ratings.

The abysmal "Babes" following "The Simpsons" is the most obvious example. "Babes" has put everybody in the habit of changing channels at 8:30 on Thursdays so that that slot is useless to Fox, even for introducing new shows. Nobody sticks around to see them.

But the most persistent problem for Fox has been finding something to offer after its original hit "Married . . . with Children," which airs Sundays at 9 o'clock. Obviously it has to be something that has a broad comedic appeal; the "Married . . . with Children" audience is not looking for Noel Coward at 9:30.

At the beginning of this season, Fox tried what sounded like a promising idea, the undertaker sitcom "Good Grief" with Howie Mandel. It was about as funny as a funeral. Now it has gone back to Ron Leavitt and Arthur Silver, co-executive producers of "Married . . with Children" for a new show.

It's called "Top of the Heap" and features two characters who were introduced on "Married . . . with Children," the father and son team of Charlie and Vinnie Verducci. Charlie is the incompetent super of an apartment building. His son is a young hunk who is utterly lacking in ambition.

But Charlie, who is full of get-rich-quick schemes, sees Vinnie as his ticket to easy street. The idea in the first episode, which will air Sunday night at 9:30 on Channel 45 (WBFF), is to get Vinnie married off to a rich woman, though Vinnie just wants to be a parking lot attendant.

The show opens with a lovely young thing trying to talk Vinnie into an amorous adventure. He doesn't get it. This, of course, repeats the theme from "Married . . . with Children" that has Peg constantly trying to interest the reluctant Al in sex.

Somehow having this 20-year-old kid resist such advances is a bit harder to understand -- it's supposed to be because the girl is only 16 and so he could get in trouble -- but it seems to be in there to show that Vinnie's three-way light bulb is always on dim.

Charlie's in trouble with the apartment building's tenants because he spent the money that was slated for fixing the boiler on a self-improvement course for Vinnie that was supposed to make him fit in with rich people.

It turns out that the parking attendant job is at a posh health club where the aerobicized women are all over Vinnie like a new pair of Lycra tights. And there's an opposites attract spark between Charlie and the club manager Alixandra.

One major problem with "Top of the Heap": It's not very funny. Occasionally there's a smile or a little chuckle, but most of the humor seems stilted and forced. It's not aided by the wooden delivery of Matt LeBlanc, who plays Vinnie, even though he is ably supported by the considerable talents of Joseph Bologna as Charlie and Rita Moreno as Alixandra, both of whom deserve better.

Though it might not merit the immediate burial that "Good Grief" did, "Top of the Heap" is somewhere near the bottom of the pile. If anything, the failure of these two shows makes you appreciate "Married . . . with Children."

"Heap" is a rude, crude and lewd sitcom with scripts that appear to have been constructed with a chain saw and sledge hammer. After seeing the attempts to cram similarly broad-based humor into "Good Grief" and "Top of the Heap," you realize that there is some genuine craftsmanship behind "Married . . . with Children."

Its humor might be farcical, but it comes from genuine, three-dimensional characters who are wonderfully portrayed, placed in offbeat, but still accessible, situations. "Top of the Heap" is a bad baggy-pants comedian by comparison.

If you're looking for a nice way to close out your weekend, check out the PBS series "Bookmark" that runs on Maryland Public Television, Channels 22 and 67, Sunday nights at 11:30 p.m.

Each week, host Lewis Lapham interviews the author of a book and a related commentator in a discussion that's something akin to a cut-down version of "Apostrophe," the French book discussion show that is a big hit in that country.

Last Sunday, Dickens was the topic as Peter Ackroyd talked about his biography of the author with Michael Thomas, an author and Dickensophile. This Sunday, the topic is a bit heavier as Uta Ranke-Heinemann, who wrote the strong polemic against sexism in the Catholic church called "Eunuchs for the Kingdom of God," is the featured guest.

Lapham does a good job of knowing when to step in and when to keep his head low and out of the way. The result is intelligent, erudite conversation, something that's all-too-rare on TV these days.

@"Top of the Heap" * * A father-son team are constantly scheming to get rich quick.

CAST: Joseph Bologna, Rita Moreno

TIME: Sundays at 9:30 p.m.

CHANNEL: Fox Channel 45 (WBFF)

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